Bridging the gap:

 Memetics as a methodological tool to close the ranks between social and traditional history.


Rogan Jacobson


This paper will look at the evolutionary nature of information replication and transfer, and to use memetics as a methodological tool for historical analysis, and one which helps to rebuild the gap between traditional and sociological historical methods. Traditionally, modern scholars write histories using contemporary texts and analysing them through the window of hindsight, causality and comparison to surrounding texts; social historians use various methods of analysis to contextualize the information and plot or map the surrounding action, yet these largely treat the content of the text as being of primary importance, more often than not leaving unassessed the structure of the information presentation.

Memetic science is in its infancy, and is currently being used in many and varied academic and non-academic fields; such as the work of Richard Dawkins in the field of evolutionary biology, Daniel Dennett in his research on the philosophy of mind, others in the fields of social sciences such as Francis Heylighten, and a host of others in such diverse fields as artificial intelligence research, corporate strategy planning, psychology, sociology and cultural evolution.

However, to the best of my knowledge memetics has not as yet been used extensively in the study of history. This is probably fairly easily explained. The science itself is, as I said, in its infancy. Therefore, a great deal of time and effort is currently being spent upon the method itself, seeking a more rigid analytical framework. These issues and many more are currently being fleshed out by memeticists, or interested academics, all over the globe. However, it cannot be denied that memetics does have something to offer us now, even in its youth, as an explanation of thought by analysing the structures by which `successful' or popular ideas transmit themselves form brain to brain. The science offers us the ability to structurally assign properties to certain types of ideas, empirically defend this formula, and then assess what this `idea', this meme, can be expected to do or more importantly not do. For the historian working with, at best, often shaky accounts of actual events, and more often than not simply working with accounts expressing various successful ideas of the day, this science may prove invaluable.

Memetics can be used by the historian of ideas (from either camp) to determine the nature of any historical information transfer structure by mapping, as it were, the way in which the data propagates and the structural information/belief issues comprising the `meme pool' of the time being investigated, thereby adding colour to the historian's analysis and providing a fuller history.

To provide scope for an explication of memetics as methodology, albeit in its infancy, and as an academic discipline in its own right, I shall be looking specifically at the field of ancient religious history in the time of St Augustine. Ancient religious history, more so than more modern or contemporary history, suffers in research from a dearth of texts (due largely to lesser technologies and lower literacy rates) leaving traditional historians often forced to lean towards `best guess' invention to complete a textual picture of the times. In cases where texts simply weren't written, and oral histories have been lost, historians are often faced with massive linear breaks in their analysis, and resort to economic or geographical considerations to fill in the blanks. This concentration on the content of texts and the actions of contemporary actors, and not the structural nature of the information replication itself, presents a problem in modern historiography that memetic analysis should be used to redress.

In determining an interpretation of events, it is often practised procedure for traditional historians to try and bleed their sources of the input of the author, to remove any personal, subjective comments in the interest of a Dragnet `just the facts ma'am' objectivity. This history of `heroes and monsters' is slowly being subsumed by social historical theory[1], such as that proposed by Roland Barthes in his essay on `Historical Discourse'. Barthes argues that this practice of analysis is detrimental to the history itself. The historian, in writing, tries to remove his/her own persona form the work, to give the impression that we have before us nothing but statistical data. This attempt is seen by the structuralists as semantically impossible, given that not only must the historian interpret the data, but he/she must then write a history within the linguistic terms of his/her own contemporary society, their langue, and under the code-restrictions of their day.[2] . Traditional historians try to argue that the referent is speaking for itself, ontologically privileging the historical fact above and beyond the signs which make it known[3].

The sociological historians, however, approach the information in a radically different way. Structuralist history theories, such as those put forward by historians and social theorists such as Michel Foucault, stress that the analysis of historical texts, or our information packages, should look less toward the content of texts, and more toward the signification to be found concerning the wider society located therein, looking for ideological ciphers to extrapolate the world view surrounding them. As Foucault notes, the role of the `new' history is not to interpret the document; instead it "organises the document, divides it up, distributes it, orders, arranges it in levels, establishes series, distinguishes between what is relevant and what is not, discovers, elements, defines unities, describes relations"[4]. Both types of history have evolved towards each other, with traditional historians often using sociological method in their analysis[5], yet leaving the pragmatic `traditional' assessment of replication mechanisms untouched.

In the case of St Augustine we see a prime example of this. In his lifetime, Augustine of Hippo was a prolific writer, seeking to promote a specific type of church and propagation of Christianity, namely one heavily steeped in the realities of the world around it, and one keen to acquire power and unity. This message, most clearly outlined textually in his work De Doctrina Christiana, centres around notions of education in Christian discourse and philosophical involvement with pagan writings and arguments as opposed to the discord among believers which arises when dealing with conflicting beliefs. "Nay, but let every good and true Christian understand that wherever truth may be found, it belongs to his Master; and while he recognises and acknowledges the truth, even in their religious literature, let him reject the figments of superstition... And even when in the course of an historical narrative former institutions of men are described, the history itself is not to be reckoned among human institutions; because things that are past and gone and cannot be undone are to be reckoned as belonging to the course of time, of which God is the author and governor."[6].

Traditional historical analysis treats the text of the document as sacred, seeking objectivity in analysis by determining from the text the nature of the author's ideas on the structure of the church as a focal point for the changing nature of early church history. Structuralist approaches use the text to depart from it to the audience and divine the nature of the society around St Augustine, arriving at assumptions about education, and learning etc. Both methods come together well, yet neither addresses the mechanical reasons behind the replication of such a text.

Memetic fitness criteria

 Memetic analysis proposes certain criteria for the survival and successful replication of an idea, any idea, without references to the empirical or theoretical 'truth' of the content. In this sense, memetics offers the researcher into the history of ideas an analytical tool for looking at text without fear of being subjectively swayed by the actual content of the texts being studied. The criteria by which memes are deemed fit or unfit in terms of their ability to replicate centre essentially, as noted by Dawkins[7], around their fecundity, copying fidelity and longevity. The analysis of these criteria provides a structural blueprint for the historian in that they allow a reassessment of texts in terms of the cultural structure, or meme pool, in which they are found to replicate.

The fecundity of any meme, ie its ability to be understood, presents many interesting possibilities for the historian. De Doctrina Christiana, for example, has been treated by modern scholars largely in light of its similarity to modern semiotic theory. the text is being treated and analysed in terms of the effect such theories have had on modern intellectual discourse. However, by looking at the ability of contemporary sources to understand basic sign-theory, we see a smaller pool of possible replication. Such theories previously only existed in rhetorical schools of Greece and Rome, and held little sway over the general populous. To this end, we see St Augustine increasing the fecundity of the work by adding references and analyses that would easily be understood by a wider audience - music, the games, pagan epics and myths etc. Thus the historian is able to see, before analysing the content, that the meme of the work is a fit one for the surrounding meme pool and ought to do well.

The copying fidelity of any meme can also be measured a great degree of accuracy. Again, our example of De Doctrina Christiana would replicate well. It consists of short paragraphs, easily sent in letter form, or read out in sermons. It refers directly to, and quotes heavily from, Scriptures which were already circulated and can be written or spoken at academic or basic levels of intellectual understanding.


And finally, the longevity of the work shows the historian how likely the meme is to propagate. In De Doctrina Christiana, we see a work which although specific in its reference to biblical texts (already strong memes, and already shown to be long-lived) other contemporary references are kept at a minimum and metaphor is brought into play. In this way the work is able to achieve an intellectually `timeless' quality, which enables it to persist and replicate long after references to local conditions have passed from memory.


Fitness criteria can easily be adjusted constantly according to information on the available means of replication. That is to say, for example, a meme in fourth century Europe would not necessarily be deemed unfit for its inability to transfer well on television. All that is required for an idea to be treated as a meme is that it should behave like one; ie that it should be highly successful in replicating itself within a given community. Further and more specific memetic conditions for replication fitness are contained in the handout of the work by Ron Hale-Evans[8]. These criteria, more specific in their inquiry, provide the historian a blueprint, as it were, for the strength of any meme in a given society, and a base from which to embark upon other methodologies of analysis. In terms of cultural evolution, therefore, the researcher is able to generate a blueprint of the meme pool of the day by looking at means of information dispensation and replication and the mechanisms by which the more successful memes of the time propagate; historians of any period can usually pinpoint, with a fair degree of accuracy, such factors as influence the replication of ideas:

* languages spoken, and who understood them,

* state of literacy

* most common means of general populous communication

* technological means of the society

* interaction with other surrounding societies and ease of transfer between them


For example, we are able to see that in 4th century Europe oral histories delivered in terms of narrative, sermon and parable, philosophical debate, letter writing and book production were the key machinery for the replication of ideas concerning the early church. Memetic analysis of these mechanisms, determining who had access to them and how they were used, provides the historian with a clear view of possible successful memes in terms of structure.


What's in a meme: increased objectivity in historical analysis

Memes replicate without any overt responsibility for the nature of their content. For the historian this provides a clean arena for analysis; it cannot be argued that the meme of Christianity was passed on and replicated itself successfully in its chosen form because it was right, or because it was true, but merely because over the period of its birth and growth, the form in which the meme survived was the most successfully copied, more easily able to reach 'uninfected minds' (for reasons open to discussion) and more able to meld with the other beliefs stored in the mind of the follower. The structure of the information package was, and indeed still is, a memetically fit one.


A meme that successfully replicates itself is not necessarily good or right, rather it merely operates more effectively within the cultural climate it finds itself. We see then that St Augustine's meme of Christianity was able to replicate itself more frequently, among more minds and across more generations while maintaining a high degree of copying fidelity than the other religious memes competing with Christianity at the time. One meme supplanted the other for the predominant mind-space, yet both `survived'. Memetics is a useful method for the historian seeking to paint a picture of a contemporary meme-pool in concert with more traditional assessments of ancient European culture, which as often as not take into account at a paramount level; such things as the local geography, ideological voids left with the passing of the strength of the Roman Empire, military issues concerning the 'friendship' of the Church with the emperor, the nature of the religion in a historical sense, perceived religious voids and other such issues. In other words, historians of the period can use memetics to look at the replication of two complementary and competing ideas of Christianity, not merely at paganism and Christianity. Further, memetic methodology can be used to more effectively asses the effect of the actions of the individuals who hold and replicate these ideas upon the replication and mutation of that idea throughout the meme pool. Normal methods of historical inquiry, whether social or traditional, are inadequate in this field, as they concentrate too heavily upon the actions of the 'agents', and not enough upon the structure and force of the ideas themselves.


This brings us to an interesting criticism of memetic method, namely the nature and relevance of truth claims. Memetic historical methodology involves investigating what can be referred to as the mechanisms for a `successful idea', and yet in the case of religion it happens to be an idea (or more correctly a complex series of ideas) which is packed to the rafters with truth statements. It may therefore be argued that since this particular idea (or indeed any other successful meme) most aptly succeeds in the human cultural sphere, it lends itself to notions of truth. This, however, is not a function of the science. All we are researching here is the strength (replicating ability/attractiveness/copying fidelity) of an idea, and how one meme can supplant another in the minds of believers, an area which in no way suggests that in our case Augustine was `right', and orthodox pagan religions `wrong', but does imply that Augustine's ideas were memetically strong in their phrasing and reproduction, giving them a far better chance of replication in the society of the time.


Memetic theory in history is a methodology for the assessment of the replication possibilities of ideas, not their `truth. We could just as easily use memetics to assess the `flat earth theory' (still alive today in some ever decreasing circles) without ever mentioning the `truth' of its claims. The only `truth' claimed by the science is a mechanical one. That is, the prevalence and success of certain ideas to reach more people can be traced to certain memetics structural imperatives, and the growth of such ideas more accurately charted. Most methods of analysis when charting or explaining the growth and history of ideas have relied upon their perceived effect upon the `readership', and their historical relationship to what has gone before. Memetics, however, provides a more objective standpoint. With it we can look at the replication of an idea in itself, then go on to attribute this idea with certain proactive `abilities', or avenues for replication and spread. This, more fully explained and researched idea will then be submitted to regular methods of analysis, but from all sides. The language will come under scrutiny, also the subject matter, the changes in audience, the perspective of the writer, the perceived world-view of the laity and the goal of the work. This, I believe, will give us a new direction to ponder in terms of historical research and analysis.


Select Bibliography

Dawkins, R The Selfish Gene, Paladin 1976

 Eco, U, The Name of the Rose, Picador, 1984 St Augustine, De Doctrina Christiana, book II, translation from Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers at URL <>.

 Foucault, M The Archaeology of Knowledge, trans. A.M. Sheridan Smith, London: Tavistock 1972

 Winks, R.W. The Historian as Detective: Essays on Evidence, Harper & Row 1968

 Critical and Effective histories: Foucault's Methods and Historical Sociology, ed Mitchell Dean, Routledge 1994

 Cultural Selection, Agner Fog, Electronic Book at URL <>

 Discourse and Difference: Post-structuralism, feminism and the moment of history, ed Andrew Milner and Chris Worth, Centre for general and comparative literature, Monash University 1990

 Educational theory and practice in St Augustine, George Howie M.A. M.Ed PhD, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London 1969

 Historical Sociology, Philip Abrams, The Pitman Press, 1982

 Justifying Historical Descriptions, C Behan McCullagh, Cambridge University Press 1984

 Main Trends in Cultural History: Ten Essays, ed Willem Melching & Wyger Velema, Rodopi, Amsterdam - Atlanta 1994


Barthes, R, "Historical Discourse" in Structuralism: a Reader, ed M.Lane, Jonathan Cape, Thirty Bedford Square, London 1970, pp145 - 69. Hale-Evans, R. "Memetics: A Systems Metabiology", Version 950220 at URL <>Last, J "The nature of history" pp 142 - 157 in Interpreting archaeology: finding meaning in the past. Ian Hodden et al, Routledge, London 1995

 Markus R.A., "Signs, Communication and Communities", pp.97 - 108 in De Doctrina Christiana : a classic of western culture edited by Duane W.H. Arnold and Pamela Bright. Notre Dame : University of Notre Dame Press, c1995. Meard, M. "Re-reading (Vestal) Virginity", ch 11 p171 in Women in Antiquity, eds R.Hawley and B Lerick 1995.


[1] See Jonathan Last's article "The nature of history" pp 142 - 157 in Interpreting archaeology: finding meaning in the past. Ian Hodden et al, Routledge, London 1995

 [2] Barthes, R, "Historical Discourse", p149: "What really happens is that the author discards the human persona but replaces it with an `objective' one; the authorial subject is as evident as ever, but it has become an objective subject. Structuralism: a Reader, ed M.Lane, Jonathan Cape, Thirty Bedford Square, London 1970, pp145 - 69.

 [3] See Beard's reread of Beard in "Re-reading (Vestal) Virginity", ch 11 p171 in Women in Antiquity, eds R.Hawley and B Lerick 1995.

 [4] Foucault, M The Archaeology of Knowledge, trans. A.M. Sheridan Smith, London: Tavistock 1972, 6-7

 [5] For example see RA Markus, "Signs, Communication and Communities", where in his analysis of St Augustine's De Doctrina Christiana he stresses the need to use semiotic methodology, pp.97 - 108 in De Doctrina Christiana : a classic of western culture edited by Duane W.H. Arnold and Pamela Bright. Notre Dame : University of Notre Dame Press, c1995.

 [6] St Augustine, De Doctrina Christiana, book II, translation from Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers chs 18 (28) and 28 (42) at URL <>.

 [7] Dawkins, R The Selfish Gene, Paladin 1976 p208

 [8] Ron Hale-Evans, Memetics: A Systems Metabiology, Version 950220 at URL <>